A Tale of Two Cities

Government saturates every corner of our lives. It educates our children, regulates our farming, manages our transportation and traffic, etc., etc., etc. It even inhabits the very air that we breathe, for we pay taxes so politicians can try to keep that air clean. Indeed, politics are just as non-negotiable an aspect of living as are food, clothing, and shelter. From tribes to constitutional democracies, government has always been part and parcel of our nature.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that God reveals himself to us not just rationally, morally, and emotionally, but also politically: according to the Bible, if we know God as Creator, Savior, and Wonderful Counselor, then we must also know him as King—as the King of Kings.

This theme is just as prevalent and weighty in the theocracy of the Old Testament (which is the story about the nation of Israel) as it is in the church of the New Testament: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” (1 Pet 2:9) In fact, the reason given by those who killed Jesus was that he claimed to be King. (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26) This was also the reason Herod tried to kill Jesus when he was a child (Matthew 2:1-18).

So if we are to understand the Bible, then we must understand it as a story about nations and about God’s kingship. The grand narrative unfolds as a battle between two political entities—the city of peace, built by God, and the city of babble, built by man.

The Beginning of the Story

The City of Babble and the City of Peace

In the beginning, when God created Adam & Eve, the first man and woman, he gave them great authority over the earth. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28) However, they decided that they wanted more authority. They wanted to be like God, with moral authority over good and evil.

So when God commanded them not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they disobeyed. They decided they would rather trust themselves than trust God. So he sent them away from his presence. And from that point on, as people began to multiply on the earth, they kept trying to claim the authority of God.

The City of Babble

Early on they banded together to try to build their way up to heaven.

“Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4) In short, they wanted nothing less than to build their way up to heaven, to be like God.

According to the Bible, such self-righteous ambition is not just rebellious; it is also nonsensical. For it implies not just that we can measure ourselves against God’s standards, but also that we can measure God against ours. God’s response to this incoherent babble was to strike the people with confusion and scatter them with many languages.

“And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’” (Genesis 11:6-7)

Thus the people’s plan were thwarted, but that was only the beginning of the city of Babel. For even though God scattered the people all across the globe and confused their language, they still pursued the same illogical plans. Instead of asking God to bless them they opposed God. In fact, centuries later, God’s people would go to war with a nation called Babylon, whose king made himself out to be a god. But before we look at that, we must see the beginning of the other city, the city of peace.

The City of Peace

Again in the book of Genesis, immediately after the confusion at Babel and the failure to reach heaven, God then chose a man named Abram and promised him the very same thing which the people building the Tower of Babel had wanted—a great name and also a great city (or even better, a great nation).

“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” (Genesis 12:1-3)

In short, through Abram (whose name he changed to Abraham) and his descendants God would show the world a stairway to the place God built and the place God dwells—that is, to heaven.

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:8-10)

The results would be the same as planned for the Tower of Babel, but the cause would be different. The people who trust in the promise to Abraham will have a great name for themselves, and will inhabit a city in heaven. But it will be something that God accomplishes, and the city will be built by God, not by man. Indeed, soon after God makes this promise to Abram, we are introduced to the city of shalom (Hebrew for “peace”), whose king is the king of righteousness:

“And Melchizedek [literally, ‘king of righteousness’] king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.” (Genesis 14:18-20)

This cryptic and mysterious account leaves us with many questions—questions which God doesn’t fully answer until the New Testament is written some 2000 years later. However, what is clear is that Melchizedek, the king of the City of Peace to whom Abraham gave tribute, is also priest of God Most High. The Hebrew word for peace (שָׁלֵם) would lead to the name Yerushalem or Yerushalayim (i.e. Jerusalem), which comes from Yhwh Yir’eh, “God will see to it” plus sha’lom “Salem”. So Jerusalem means “God-built City of Peace.” It will not just be in heaven. It will be heaven itself.

Thus the stage is set for the epic battle between two cities, a battle that will end in heaven and hell.

The End of the Story

The Destruction of Babylon and the Renewal of Jerusalem

By the end of the Bible many nations have multiplied on the earth, with their many languages. And as these nations grew they had to choose where their allegiance lay: were they going to trust in God or in man? When it comes to deciding between right and wrong, people and nations can move in one and only one of these two directions. They will either embrace self-righteousness (whether corporate or individualistic) or they will “…seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.” (Acts 17:27) They will either spout babble in making themselves the creators of God (by carving out images and bowing down to them) and the authors of morality and truth and understanding, or they will cry out to the Creator for understanding, and ask and seek and knock.

One way or the other, the very presence of government forces people to wrestle with notions of absolute right and wrong, and who the author(s) of those absolutes might be. According to the Bible, our desire to make our name great and usurp the thrown of God is overwhelming. As atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell put it: “Power is sweet; it is a drug, the desire for which increases with a habit.” (Saturday Review, 1951) Or as Baron John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton put it, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

With the stakes so high and the temptations so great, we simply have to choose. And by the end of the Bible the entire world is polarized into those who are with God and those who are against him. Jesus himself returns to earth in bodily form:

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure,were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp swordwith which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. (Revelation 19:11-16; see also 17:14)

But many nations have given in to corruption and allied themselves with Babylon, “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” (Revelation 17:18) And in the thoroughly anticlimactic final battle of Armageddon, all these kings with their armies gather behind Satan to fight against Jesus.

Picture this massive buildup of war machines in anticipation of a cosmic conflict between good and evil. Millions of troops move forward in an awesome display of might and power. Their cries for victory thunder across the land. But before it even begins Satan is captured. “And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.” (Revelation 19:21; see also Revelation 20:7-10)

Such is the end of the city of chaos. (It is just as nonsensical to try to fight the Creator as it is to try to create him.)

But as the one city is destroyed forevermore, the other is re-established. An angel shows John (who grew up as a fisherman and then became a disciple of Jesus, and as an old man wrote the book of Revelation) the new City of Peace: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” (Revelation 21:2) It is full of people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” are worshiping together. (Revelation 5:9)

Heaven on earth has begun.

Between the Beginning and the End

The Reversal of Babble and the Proclamation of Peace

When God first brought Israel out of Egypt, he made it abundantly clear to them that they were not better or more deserving than the Egyptians or the Canaanites. But in case there was any doubt about the matter, the Israelites quickly proved to be in their hearts like all other people—unworthy stewards of God’s name (Deuteronomy 9:6-7). And no matter how many times he rescued them from their enemies, they continued to both insult him and provoke his jealousy. They were supposed to be a light to the nations, showing them how to have peace with God; instead, they wanted the glory for themselves. No matter what he did for them they continued to rebel by (1) worshiping idols and (2) oppressing the poor.

These two sins always went hand in hand, because they both exalt the self. They are also synonymous with the ambitions at the Tower of Babel.

So God finally gave them over to their enemies, and allowed Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, to conquer them and take them into exile. He destroyed Jerusalem, crushed the Temple, and demanded tribute from the poor who remained in the land.

The message was loud and clear: oh, how they needed a Savior. Although God could conquer their enemies, heal their diseases, protect them from disaster, and prosper them greatly, what could be done to save them from their own sin? Is God able to create peace on earth, or will there always be rebellion? Those are the awkward and terrifying questions that confront us by the middle of the Bible, when God sent the Babylonians to conquer his people.

The Arrival of a Savior

For seventy years the Jews wallowed in exile, but eventually they were allowed to return. They first rebuilt their Temple, and then the wall around Jerusalem. Although within a one generation they began compromising again, they had learned a couple of very important lessons: pay attention to God’s words, and don’t make idols. Indeed, they learned these lessons with a vengeance.

Over the next two centuries they were passed, as a vassal state, from the Babylonians to the Persians to the Greeks (under Alexander the Great). Then for a time they were a sovereign nation again, only to be taken over by Rome.

That is when a humble miracle-worker appeared on the scene, showing himself to be the long-awaited King. He spoke very clearly and fulfilled all the prophecies, yet the religious leaders were astonished at his meekness and lowliness. They had wanted a savior who would lead them in military conquest and restore Israel’s former glory; instead, they got an itinerant preacher who traveled with a band of rednecks, outcasts, rejects, and sinners.

They could not stand him.

They wanted him to dazzle them with signs and wonders, but he refused. They wanted to put him on a leash, but he put them to shame. They wanted a warrior who would use might and force to establish sovereignty; instead they got a shepherd who would lay down his life without any fight at all. When he lay claim to the throne of Israel, they executed him.

But here is the key for understanding it: this was something God had planned from the beginning. In fact, Jesus said,

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my father. (John 10:17-18)

So Jesus willingly submitted to crucifixion. More than that, the Bible says that his Father was the one who had him punished.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
    he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
    he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. (Isaiah 53:10)

The reason God crushed Jesus is that he is so angry with all the wickedness in the world. If there is to be justice in his kingdom, if that word is to have any meaning, then someone must pay for all the injustice. It cannot be ignored or just forgotten. However, in addition to having great anger, the Bible says that God also has great love for the world. Therefore, he chose to pay the penalty himself. That is why Jesus died on the cross.

The Reversal of Babble

Then the most amazing thing happened. Three days after they crucified him, he rose from the dead. Forty days after that he ascended into heaven. And when he left he told his followers to wait until the Holy Spirit came upon them. They waited ten days in Jerusalem:

And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at the sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:2-12)

It meant that two millennia after the Tower of Babel, God was reversing the confusion. Instead of scattering people, God united them with the good news of how to take the stairway to heaven. Starting in Jerusalem, Jesus followers proclaimed this gospel, and then began the epic commission to make disciples of all the nations. (See Matthew 28:18-20.) Some fifteen centuries earlier the nation of Israel had begun not just with Hebrews but also with a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38); nevertheless, it had remained largely Jewish. But with the establishment of the church, it would now define multiculturalism.

This commission has continued to this day, and will find its culmination in the New Jerusalem, where they will worship the King of Kings, “for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10)

“The kingdom of God is at hand;

Repent, and believe in the gospel!”

In all of his wonderful teaching on ethics, Jesus said nothing about political oppression or tyranny. The Jews wanted freedom from Rome, but when they asked Jesus about it, he told them to pay taxes to Caesar. Another time he taught that if a Roman soldier orders you to carry his load for a mile (as law allowed him to do), that you should carry it two miles. That’s all Jesus had to teach on such matters. Many people very much wanted him to start a political and military rebellion, but he would have nothing of it. Instead, his message to his followers was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

We cannot blame others—the rulers, the politicians, the fascists, the terrorists, the republicans, the democrats, etc.—for the ills of society.  When one of Jesus’ followers, the Apostle Paul, wrote that there is no governing authority except from God, “and those that exist have been instituted by God,” (Romans 13:1) Nero, the Emperor of Rome, was contemptuously persecuting Christians. He would throw them to wild animals, crucify them, or dip them in tar and nail them to a pole to serve as torch lights at his parties. When in 64 AD a fire burned much of the capital, he viciously blamed it on them. Yet Paul simply said to submit.

We cannot blame others for we are just as prone to villainy as anyone else, and might commit the same heinous acts if given the opportunity and the provocation. And just as we cannot blame others, so also we cannot find salvation in ourselves or our own forms of government, no matter how popular or strong they may appear to be.

Likewise, just as we cannot blame others, so also we cannot look to others to save us. We always like strong rulers. We often value strength more than character, and long for political conquest and victory. Yet the Bible makes it very clear that might never makes right—even with the Almighty. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.”(Zechariah 4:6) Jesus derives his authority as King of Kings, as the Prince of Peace, as the one who justifies the many, from the fact that 2000 years ago he humbled himself to the point of death on a cross. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

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